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The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday put a temporary hold on a trial court judge's order giving a married father custody of his daughter, who was placed for adoption at birth without the father's consent or knowledge.
Terry Achane, an Army drill sergeant stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, was waiting in Dallas to board a plane bound for Utah, when he got the news. A hearing set for Wednesday in Provo's 4th District Court, during which Achane expected to get custody of Teleah, his 2-year-old daughter, was canceled.
"He is very disappointed," said Mark Wiser, one of Achane's attorneys. It was unclear Tuesday evening whether Achane would continue on to Utah or return to South Carolina until the court makes a final ruling.
"Right now there are no guarantees he can see his daughter," Wiser said, adding that the adoptive parents are now under no obligation to accommodate visits.
The high court said the provisional stay on the petition for emergency relief filed by the adoptive parents would give it "the time necessary to adjudicate the request for emergency relief," but did not indicate how long that might take.
"It could be a day or two, it could be a week," Wiser said.
Attorney Lane Rich, who represents adoptive parents Jared and Kristi Frei, said they would not be commenting on the case at this time.
Fourth District Judge Darold McDade gave Achane custody of Teleah in a Nov. 20 ruling in which he found she had been illegally placed for adoption. McDade upheld that decision on Jan. 4.
Achane and Tira Bland, his now ex-wife, were living in Texas when she conceived Teleah; the baby was due in mid-March 2011. Achane received a job transfer to Fort Jackson and left Texas in mid-January to report for duty. He planned to return to Texas for the baby's birth and then expected his family to join him in South Carolina.
But 10 days after Achane left Texas, Bland decided to place the baby for adoption. She contacted the Adoption Center of Choice and told the agency her husband had abandoned her and had no interest in the child. She gave birth in Utah on March 1, 2011. Two days later, Bland relinquished her parental rights and the baby was placed with the Freis.
Achane did not learn what had become of his daughter until June 2011. He immediately contacted the agency and demanded the return of his daughter, but both the agency and the Freis refused and attempted to proceed with an adoption.
McDade dismissed their adoption petition as part of his November order, noting that the right of a legal parent to raise his or her child without undue government interference is a "fundamental liberty interest" recognized by both the state and the federal government.
"At all times, a parent retains a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable destruction of family life," the judge wrote, adding that "parental rights are at their apex for parents who are married."
"Just by marrying the woman who may one day become the mother of his child, a man is deemed to have demonstrated his commitment to the responsibilities of parenthood such that there is no need for him to first 'prove himself' by either developing a substantial relationship with his child or complying with the statutes intended to give unmarried, putative fathers an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the responsibilities of parenthood even though they were not willing to do so by marrying their child's mother," the judge wrote.
Once Achane notified the agency and the Freis that he wanted his child, "they should have cooperated," the judge said.
In his November ruling, McDade gave 60 days for the transfer of the child's custody to occur, envisioning a stepped transition. After an initial delay, Achane has had regular telephone visits with his daughter, whom he met twice during trips to Utah for court hearings.
Wiser said he had anticipated coming up with a visitation plan for the Freis during Wednesday's hearing, but that Achane would return to South Carolina with his daughter the next day where family had already gathered to help welcome and care for the girl.